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The other day Conrad Black was interviewed by the BBC’s Jeremy Paxton and in a spirited defence of himself, Lord Black was adamant that his experience with the American criminal justice system would not have happened to him in either the UK or in Canada. He said, “in the first place, under British and Canadian rules none of this would stand up.” I’m not qualified to say whether or not he was right about the UK. I am however certain that his Lordship could just as easily have been on the receiving end of a ferocious prosecution and police tunnel vision in his home and native land. I wouldn’t go so far as to call Canada’s criminal justice system a, “fraudulent, fascistic conveyor belt to the corrupt prison system,” as Black did when describing the American criminal justice system, but that’s just me. I suspect that Steven Truscott, David Milgaard, Thomas Sophonow, Guy Paul Morin and Donald Marshall, were he still alive, might disagree with me. And as for conveyor belt justice, I have no doubt that Canada’s overly incarcerated aboriginal males won’t be stepping forward anytime soon to vouch for the sanctity of Canadian justice — nor should they.
We need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that our justice system is better, purer and more virtuous than America’s. Fundamentally any criminal justice system is run by people and people get things wrong. We only need to read about Dr. Charles Smith to see the misery and hell that one person can unleash on the innocent all in the name of “doing what’s right”, “getting the bad guys” and making sure “justice is done”.
We like to think of ourselves in Canada as genteel and we trust and comfort ourselves in the solemnity and traditions of our institutions although with every passage of another omnibus bill and every proroguing of the legislature that trust erodes. Many people who’ve never been inside a criminal courtroom in this country assume that behind those doors we lawyers sound like Rumpole of the Bailey as we sashay around the courtroom in flowing black robes — an air of serene gentility hanging in the air. But beyond the flowing robes, the bows and references to “my learned friend” is a machine that hums along making sure that our prisons our filled and and laws (some of which are ridiculous — see our misguided laws on marijuana prohibition) are enforced.
Our criminal courts are busting at the seams. More laws to prosecute, too many accused, too few courtrooms and not enough funds to defend those accused. Not to mention a federal government whose view of justice begins and ends with doing whatever it takes to “make our streets safe”.
Sorry Lord Black, much of what happened to you there could could just as easily have happened to you here.